“We had no idea that we were going to see what we saw.” These are never words you want to hear about a slaughterhouse. But they’re exactly what Adam Wilson, the director of investigations at Last Chance for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal advocacy group, said about his organization’s recent investigation of Pel-Freez, the nation’s largest rabbit processing plant, located in Rogers, Arkansas.
The details, obtained by an undercover agent who worked at Pel-Freez as a “blood catcher” for six weeks last fall, are, even by abattoir standards, morbid. Slaughterhouse workers were filmed improperly stunning rabbits by whacking them in the face with the dull side of a knife (electrical stunning is the norm); they broke the legs of conscious rabbits to better fit them onto J-hooks designed for poultry; they decapitated fully conscious rabbits; and they ignored grievous rabbit injuries. Wilson noted how, in one instance, a worker encountered an abscessed wound on a rabbit so filled with pus that he wretched.
When the media first started covering the California drought it did so from the perspective of the specific foods we eat. Given that 80 percent of the state’s water is used for agriculture, this would seem to make sense. Mother Jones crusaded against the water-hogging impact of nuts, especially almonds. Michael Pollan, seizing on an illuminating Los Angeles Times infographic, took to Twitter and declared California lentils verboten. I highlighted the disproportionate share of the state’s water consumed by beef and dairy, specifically the alfalfa crop that helps sustain these industries.
The obvious benefit of this approach is that it empowers consumers. As a consumer, I feel good about not eating beef and a little guilty about the almond milk in my fridge. I feel compelled to purchase lentils from France but comforted by the fact that beer has a relatively low water footprint. I agree that much of the produce grown in the Central and Imperial Valleys should be grown in the Midwest, but until that happens (don’t hold your breath), I’m motivated to make concrete choices that address California’s water crisis. Hard data about specific foods helps me do this.
An aggressive strain of avian flu—the largest to appear in the United States in over 30 years—has forced Midwestern chicken and turkey producers to cull over 15.1 million birds since early March. Most of these losses have occurred since mid-April. The virus, which doesn’t appear to pose an immediate threat to humans, has spread to 10 states. Iowa and Minnesota have been hit the hardest.
The economic impact of the virus—called H5N2—has been severe. Mexico and China have halted the importation of U.S. birds and eggs. Hormel Food Corps, the nation’s second largest supplier of turkey meat, highlights “significant challenges” as it forecasts lower earnings. Contract growers, who have little recourse under such circumstances, are stuck with mortgaged farms and no income. At a meeting in Minnesota some of these growers broke down in tears. “Are we done?,” Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey asked about the flu. The answer, it seems, is no. Not even close.
How should consumers interpret this situation? The conventional critique of such epidemics is that they result from industrial over-crowding—cramming too many birds into a tight space. GRAIN, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture, articulated this position during a 2006 H1N2 virus outbreak. The virus, it contended, was “essentially a problem of industrial poultry practices.” The proper response, it implied, was obvious: a transition to non-industrial, pasture-based management. Commenting on the current outbreak, Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, agreed with this perspective, writing that “the root cause” of the bird flu is “inhumane, overcrowded conditions in the poultry industry.
A direct, causal relationship between avian flu and industrial conditions would be fantastic news. Most notably, it would allow us to begin systematically fighting the disease through a surefire method: providing chickens and turkeys more space to roam. Unfortunately, the etiology of avian flu doesn’t support this connection. The problem of avian flu, it turns out, transcends farm size and stocking density and cuts right to the core of animal domestication per se.
Read more here.
As far as media attention goes, April 11, 2014, was a banner day for Greg Finch. As the lone supplier of antibiotic-free, pastured Vermont pork to the highly acclaimed 5-Knives, a specialized supplier of local pork, Finch was offered what amounted to subsidized advertising space in the Burlington Free Press. The paper’s staff reporter, Sally Pollak—who told me she met Finch at a coffeehouse—served as stenographer for Finch, who delivered his talking points:
“To [raise pigs] without the modern crutches of medicine, it’s management that makes you successful…. Doing things the right way all the time…. I take the best information I can find and adapt it to what I do.”
“This time around, with local foods, the farmer is a big part of the market, which is the exciting part of it…. It’s more of a collaboration. It’s much better for the farmer, and more vibrant for the farm.”
“I’m very, very careful about bio-security.”
Experienced observers will recognize these remarks as boilerplate rhetoric, the kind that characterizes much of today’s food writing. A year later, though, Finch finds himself mired in media muck rather than admiration.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture recently revealed that much of Finch’s “Vermont” pork came from Pennsylvania pigs. Twice a month Finch headed south to an auction house in New Holland, purchased 50 or so conventionally raised pigs, and hauled them back to the Green Mountain State, where he had them processed into “local” bellies, hams, and other choice cuts.
It was a profitable move while it lasted. Read more.
The following review essay appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of The Virginia Quarterly Review. A link to the complete article is below. Please leave comments there.
The worst thing about sausage is that it has to be made. We know this because a generation of journalists has infiltrated North America’s feedlots and slaughterhouses to expose the apparatus that churns out mass quantities of commodity meat. American agribusiness—wreaking havoc on animals, laborers, consumers, and planet Earth—is generally understood to be irredeemable. Today, enlightened consumers wouldn’t be caught dead near a Big Mac. For what it’s worth, that’s progress.
The reformist lexicon that fuels the outrage resonates with the political right, left, and everyone in between. A libertarian Virginia farmer fumes over the “industrial agriculture complex.” An Oxford-educated activist vents that “globalized corporate agriculture” has left us “stuffed and starved.” A poet-farmer whose horse-drawn plow breaks up Kentucky soil laments how “the ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.” Yikes (and yuck).
Such visceral disgust makes one wonder: Just who are these people monopolizing the world’s food supply? Indeed, the strangest thing about antiagribusiness angst is that it rages full tilt without a real understanding of the machinations that empower the corporate leviathan. We’re routinely hit with dramatic visuals: the slaughterhouses, endless corn and soy fields, obesity charts, deforestation photos, undercover animal-abuse films, and battery-caged birds. But we ignore the sterile office space where the sausage-making playbook is written
Two books—Ted Genoways’s The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food and Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business—begin to fill this gap. Genoways, a contributing writer at Mother Jones (and former editor of this publication), and Leonard, an investigative reporter, offer respective portrayals of Hormel and Tyson Foods that show how the brutality of the abattoir reflects the sangfroid of the boardroom, where cuts of a more metaphorical sort enhance the wealth of salaried executives at the expense of disposable wage workers.
My son, 13, has started a small business selling some of the photos he’s taken. He decided to do this after having unexpected success selling prints at an Austin arts fair. Feel free to check out his website and share it with others who might be interested. Most importantly, enjoy.
Gene Baur, a friend and fellow marathoner, is what you might call the activist’s activist. He’s articulate, charismatic, and a rare blend of incredibly friendly but serious at the same time.
The range of his activism runs the gamut. He travels relentlessly to give talks about his work at Farm Sanctuary and the benefits of living a compassionate “animal-friendly life” (in fact, when I first met Gene he was rambling through town in a VW Bus on a cross-country tour promoting veganism); he lives out his ideals by rescuing and raising farm animals at the nation’s leading farm sanctuary that he founded in the late 1980s; and, to top it off, he is a best-selling and elegant writer—author most recently of the Living the Farm Sanctuary Life, which is just out in paperback.
Gene’s book is a rare combination of attributes. It’s a strong plea for a plant-based diet, a guide to animal-friendly consumer and environmental ethics, an overview of farm-animal sentience, and a range of recipes that help us put our values on the plate in an especially delicious way. My favorite recipe section is “handheld meals”—and the Just Mayo chickpea salad sandwich (p. 164) has become a go to (in fact, it’ll be my lunch today).
What comes through powerfully in this book is the inspiring notion that—and I admit to doing battle with this idea—individual choice matters when it comes to creating a better world for animals. “I believe that everyone can make a significant change in their lives when they’re ready to make that change,” Baur writes. Don’t let the simplicity of the statement fool you. After reading this book, even the most worn skeptic will be softened to the possibility.
If all this sounds too good to be true, you can check Gene out for yourself. This evening he’ll be on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Tune in.
And tune in.
On March 10 West Virginia’s legislature passed a bill authorizing the consumption of raw milk. Republicans supported the measure on the basis of “farm-food freedom” and “consumer choice.” Democrats, soberly noting that unpasteurized milk can contain high levels of deadly bacteria, opposed it on the grounds that “it’s unwise and unsafe,” as one opponent said.
There’s good reason to fear raw milk. The same day that West Virginia passed its bill, a long-awaited study from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported that raw milk consumption significantly increased the risk of foodborne illness. Detection rates of Listeria and Campylobacter—two common food-related bacteria—were seven percent and three percent, respectively, in raw milk samples. More alarmingly, rates of these dangerous bacteria rose to 20 percent and 22 percent in the milk filters used to remove specks of feces from the milk (cows’ tails frequently brush feces samples into milk containers while they’re being milked).
Dr. Wayne Anderson, director of FSAI, wrote: “While the market for raw milk is small, it remains a serious concern given the well-documented public health risks posed by the presence of pathogens in raw milk. We are therefore recommending that raw milk should be avoided by consumers.” His message reflects what the United States Food and Drug Administration has long noted: that “unpasteurized milk can pose a serious health threat.”
The effort among a vocal cult of consumers to reject wholesale pasteurization highlights how, when it comes to reforming the industrial food system, aesthetics easily trump reason—not to mention public safety. Not unlike the movement among anti-vaccine advocates, proponents of raw milk allow shallow idealizations of purity and free choice to undermine the quest for a food system that can provide safe and healthy food for all consumers all the time. . .read more
In her book Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman absolves the act of eating meat from moral inquiry on the grounds that humans have always eaten animals. She explains that a “food web” in which animals and plants routinely consume each other (yes, plants eat animals) places all life in “an endless cycle of regeneration.” As a result, she concludes: “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” Please re-read that quote to make sure it sinks in.
This logic is sloppy, commonplace, and dangerous. Critics of vegetarianism or veganism routinely chant the mantra that humans “were meant to eat animals.” This comment has a “no further questions asked” tone to it. It seems intuitively true and, unfortunately, for consumers otherwise inclined to question the moral implications of eating animals, it serves as a convenient escape hatch from a question many meat eaters are eager to avoid: is it wrong to slaughter a sentient animal for food when it’s unnecessary to do so?
By relying on the “humans were meant to eat meat” logic, Niman fails to examine the assumption upon which it rests. At its foundation, the claim implies that any adaptive quality that humans might have evolved to survive is, to quote Niman, “so fundamental to the functioning of nature” that it “cannot be regarded as morally problematic.”
The problem here is that evolutionary adaptation—the essence of the “functioning of nature”—includes untold morally disgusting behaviors that, while perfectly natural in the same way that eating animals is considered natural, are rightly deemed abhorrent by decent people living in a civil society.
Take infanticide. The adaptive advantage of infanticide for many vertebrates is well-supported. This is true for humans as well as primates. Among the !Kung hunter gatherers of Kalahari, about one in a hundred births end in infanticide. In regions of New Guinea, according to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, infanticide is “off the charts,” as mothers who wanted sons (or whose partners wanted sons) will often kill their daughters.
Rather than accept this behavior as beyond moral scrutiny due to its proven “natural” or adaptive quality, civil society rightly rejects infanticide as a totally barbaric practice. The human corrective, according to many evolutionary biologists, has been monogamy—a civilized arrangement often deemed “unnatural,” but certainly morally superior to the alternative.
Another (admittedly more controversial) example to consider is rape. In 2000, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer argued in A Natural History of Rape that the urge to rape is the legacy of an evolutionary adaptive trait (or the by-product of an adaptive trait, such as aggression in men). Their theory (not surprisingly) encountered a firestorm of objection, much of it concerned that evolutionary psychology was being used as “excuse” for inexcusably horrific behavior.
Whether or not Thornhill and Palmer are right (their hypothesis is still debated), the regrettable fact remains that rape has existed throughout recorded human history, across human cultures, as well as throughout the non-human animal world. Evolutionary psychology, moreover, remains a powerful heuristic tool with which to understand the once (potentially) adaptive, if repulsive, mechanism underscoring rape.
As recently as 2013, a major peer-reviewed study has argued that, “forced sex is the outcome of an innate conditional strategy which enables men to circumvent parental and female choice when they experience a competitive disadvantage, or when the costs of doing so are low.” Other scholars are seeking to reconcile a feminist and an evolutionary psychological understanding of rape, negating the “men can’t help it” suggestion while preserving the evolutionary perspective that Thornhill and Palmer promote.
To clarify any misunderstanding on this point, the takeaway is not to equate the immorality of rape with the immorality of eating animals. Instead, it is to note that both behvaiors (one, of course, being far more common than the other) may have served adaptive functions that qualify them as “natural” and, according to Niman’s logic, beyond moral assessment.
Finally, take something much more common and less controversial: lying. From the perspective of natural adaptation, lying has likely been even more essential to human evolution than eating animals (for, as we know, some societies subsisted on plants, but lying has no plant-based counterpart!).
In Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith situates lying in our evolutionary past, one in which strategic deception had clear adaptive benefits. Lying is thus perfectly natural in the same way eating animals is perfectly natural–it’s an act humans have always done to foster evolutionary adaption. But that hardly makes it morally inert in contemporary life. We don’t like it when people lie.
Which brings me back to Niman. Today, of course, we consider all of these behaviors, in varying degrees, to be morally significant. Nobody in her right mind would contemplate infanticide, lying, or rape and declare, as Niman does of killing animals, that, “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” To the contrary, she would condemn these acts as wrong. It is on the basis of such condemnation that human civil society exists and, on good days, thrives.
Why killing animals for food we do not need gets an “it’s natural” pass is a question that Niman has yet to answer. Until she does, I see no reason to accept the naturalistic fallacy at the core of her justification for eating animals.